Content Warning: violence
A Mississippi man who fought Jim Crow-era laws to ensure that Black citizens could vote, Vernon Dahmer, Sr. died defending his family from a white supremacist attack.
“You get them out while I try to hold them off!” Vernon Dahmer shouted as he passed 10-year-old Bettie, already badly burned from the flames engulfing their home, out a back window to his wife.
The date was January 10, 1966. The place: Hattiesburg, Forrest County, Mississippi. As the Dahmer home and store went up in flames, Vernon Dahmer’s courage and quick thinking saved his family. Grabbing one of several loaded shotguns he always kept nearby, he returned fire on his attackers, trying to give the rest of his family time to get out. As his son Dennis later said, “There were about eight of them shooting at my dad. He’s shooting back at them. Running through the house while they’re burning the house, shooting the windows out, throwing gallons of gas in, throwing torches in. My dad running through the flames, shooting out the doors, shooting out the different windows. It looked like it was more than one person that was actually shooting at them. I think that that unnerved them. They got nervous. One of them drops his gun. Then they start shooting one another. The Klansmen.”
The family escaped, but Vernon’s lungs had been fatally burnt. He died from his injuries the next day.
Vernon Dahmer lived in a county named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Among many other injustices, Black men and women in Forrest County were routinely denied their right to vote. Literacy tests were just one of the capricious and humiliating barriers to voting. As Vernon’s wife Ellie, a schoolteacher with a Master’s degree later explained, “We had to go down and take that ridiculous long test . . . I went down and took that test at least three times. . . .It would be a long series of questions and then they would give you a little statement on a card and you would have to interpret what the statement meant on the card. An ordinary sixth grade child would have interpreted it correctly, but yet they’d say, ‘You failed it.’”
In 1960, out of Forrest County’s more than 7,000 voting-age Black residents, only about 100 had gotten past the many barriers to register to vote. Vernon Dahmer refused to accept this.
A father of eight who farmed land that had been in his family for generations, Vernon was a respected leader in his community. He taught Sunday school and owned both a small grocery store and a sawmill. Vernon diligently fought against Mississippi’s history of prejudice against Black voters, never ceasing in his struggle to realize the promise of the 15th Amendment—which guaranteed men could not be denied the right to vote based on “race, color or previous condition of servitude”.
In 1962, when the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against Forrest County Clerk Theron Lynd for routinely denying Blacks the right to vote, Vernon volunteered to give a sworn statement attesting to the discrimination he had suffered at the hands of Lynd and his office. “He knew that he might get killed,” Ellie said later, “and he was willing to take the risk.”
This fear was only compounded when Medgar Evers, the civil rights leader and a personal friend of Vernon’s, was assassinated in 1963. Vernon began posting armed guards around his property—sometimes his sons, sometimes other people he hired. He stopped doing anything after dark, never traveled alone, and was himself always armed.
But Vernon pressed on. During the 1964 “Freedom Summer,” Vernon was president of the local NAACP chapter. He invited members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to come out to Forrest County to organize a voting registration campaign. Vernon not only hosted the volunteers in his home, but he also gave them transportation and money, either by direct donations or by paying them in return for farm work.
The Dahmer family faced threats for years in response to Vernon’s activism, including regular harassment by the KKK. The family received menacing phone calls at all hours of the day and night. Cars buzzed through their yard and up their driveway, shooting out the windows in their store and the mailbox off its post. To further protect their home and family, Vernon and Ellie took to sleeping in shifts.
Dennis, who was just 12 years old when his father was killed, remembers a time his father called the local sheriff after the windows of his store were shot: “The sheriff comes out. He looks at the window. He looks at the damage and stuff and he’s talking to my dad about it. I remember him looking at my dad and saying something to the effect of, ‘Well, Vernon, if you wasn’t involved in all this civil rights stuff, you wouldn’t have these problems.’ He got in his car and drove off. I’m sure that sheriff had a good idea who had done it.”
Later Dennis reflected on the dissonance and injustice of his family’s situation. Ellie and Vernon, Dennis observed, “had five sons serving on active duty . . . We were out there protecting the security of the country. . . And my Dad and my Mom had to sleep in shifts to keep the family from being annihilated by the very people we were protecting in uniform.”
But by mid-1965, the Dahmers began to breathe easier. President Lyndon Johnson had signed the Voting Rights Act, and the battle seemed won. But even though literacy tests were outlawed, the poll taxes endured, and Black citizens in Hattiesburg remained uneasy about registering to vote. Intimidation was still the order of the day. KKK members routinely hung around the courthouse, staring down Black citizens. So Vernon, or one of his sons, would accompany groups of Black residents to the courthouse to pay their poll taxes and register to vote, protecting and supporting them every step of the way.
Eventually, Vernon worked out an agreement with the local sheriff to collect poll taxes and have a voter registration book placed in his grocery store. On January 9, 1966 Vernon announced this on the local radio station and then went a step further, offering to pay the $2 poll tax for those who couldn’t afford it.
That night, the KKK came for him and his family. Two carloads of Klansmen roared up from nearby Jones County, led by noted white supremacist Sam Bowers.
More than a dozen people were known to have been part of the attack on the Dahmer family, but most went free, or received short sentences. Ringleader Sam Bowers was tried three times in the 1960s for Vernon’s murder, but each trial ended in a hung jury.
The Dahmer family never gave up in their quest for justice and peace, quietly carrying on Vernon’s mission.
In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, Ellie Dahmer helped the community heal. She accepted the offer from the local white Chamber of Commerce to rebuild the family house, and many white businessmen committed to supplying materials and labor. By bringing the Black and white communities together, she helped reduce the tension and create greater peace.
In 1992, Ellie Dahmer was elected Election Commissioner of Forrest County, serving in this position for more than a decade—the very same district where her husband was murdered for his voting rights advocacy.
A few years later, the Dahmer family approached investigative journalist Jerry Mitchell to help them persuade state officials to reopen the Dahmer murder case. In 1998, Sam Bowers was finally convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Vernon Dahmer, Sr.
This time, the jury only had to deliberate for 3 ½ hours to find Bowers guilty.
Dennis Dahmer channeled his father’s passion as he spoke to the press after the verdict: “Our father gave his life for a system that he believed in, even though that system wasn’t fair to him in his lifetime. We hope today’s verdict reflects the fact that we’re living in a new South and, more particularly, a new Mississippi.”
Time and time again, Vernon Dahmer, Sr. stood up to hate until he finally made the greatest sacrifice. Etched on his tombstone are some of the last words he ever spoke, as he lay dying in his wife Ellie’s arms:
“If you don’t vote, you don’t count.”